The cost of living crisis has sparked a boom in ‘first time’ shoplifters, according to supermarket bosses.
Thefts have soared since the beginning of the year and are continuing to increase in the wake of price rises caused by the war in Ukraine which have left many consumers struggling to make ends meet.
As a result, retailers say theft levels are ‘off the charts so far this year’ according to analysts as well as anecdotal evidence from supermarket bosses to their trade journal, The Grocer.
The magazine said: ‘Store managers have told The Grocer of higher crime rates as they’re noticing ‘new first time shoplifters’ as opposed to ‘the usual suspects.”
Thefts have soared since the beginning of the year and are continuing to increase in the wake of price rises
Professional shoplifters tend to target high value goods they can sell on, such as alcohol, razors and other items but a new breed are stealing even the cheapest of products from the shelves, said The Grocer.
It added: ‘One store manager reported shoplifting starting to rise across everyday and low-value items ‘that you’d find in your weekly basket’ in contrast to the more regularly targeted luxury, high-cost items.’
Retail analyst, Bryan Roberts, of Shopfloor Insights said: ‘The situation is definitely getting worse’ and said the crime rate was ‘off the charts’.
Some shops have reintroduced the one-way entry and exit points that were around during Covid to help socially distance customers but are now there to make it easier to track who comes in and out.
Others have beefed up security in terms of personnel and/or CCTV cameras.
One store boss told The Grocer: ‘The other day we stopped a pensioner who was trying to steal things like washing powder and shampoo. With the cost of living, people are going to have to start making choices.’
Food poverty expert and Ulster University senior lecturer Dr Sinéad Furey said this was ‘not a new phenomenon’.
She said: ‘We have seen this before in previous times of austerity or economic downturn.
‘The return of ‘stealing to eat’ instead of being able to ‘afford to eat’ is yet more proof that we need effective policy solutions that put sufficient income in people’s hands in a dignified way so that poverty and resorting to crime do not become mainstream means of securing the most basic essentials of living.’
Research by the Food Foundation showed in April 7.3 million UK adults skipped meals, reduced meal size or went without food for a day due to costs.
Shore Capital analyst, Clive Black, said the ‘temptation to shoplift is likely to grow for some’ as prices rose.
He added: ‘More straitened times bring a greater risk, and in some cases, need, for shoplifting, which is a notable problem for shopkeepers, especially since the police are disinterested participants, despite stores paying extortionate rates.
‘The government shows little real interest in such matters whilst the courts and penal system cannot cope with serious crime never mind more mundane matters such as thieving from a store.
‘It is a symptom of a failed system, sadly. So, within limits, shopkeepers have to try and control matters.’
One Sainsbury’s store, pictured on social media, showed Lindt and Green & Black’s chocolate bars in individual, locked plastic cases, the kind of security precaution usually associated with small electrical goods, mobile phones and other more valuable items.
Andy Cooke, the new policing watchdog, risked the wrath of retailers as he suggested officers should weigh up whether it was best to haul those who steal to eat before the courts
The reported ‘rise’ comes as police officers were told in the last week to use their ‘discretion’ when deciding whether to prosecute shoplifters amid the cost of living crisis.
Andy Cooke, the new policing watchdog, risked the wrath of retailers as he suggested officers should weigh up whether it was best to haul those who steal to eat before the courts.
The Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary warned the rise in cost of living would ‘trigger an increase in crime’.
However, he advised police to use their ‘discretion’ to make sure such matters of law enforcement are ‘dealt with in the best way possible’.
Mr Cooke insisted that he didn’t want to be seen as ‘giving carte blanche for people to go out shoplifting’ or advocating an amnesty for people who commit crimes of poverty.
Nevertheless, his intervention could yet enrage retailers who warn it is ‘irresponsible to suggest that shoplifting should not be treated seriously’.
Mr Cooke, a former Merseyside police chief who took over as head of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary last month, said: ‘The impact of poverty, and the impact of lack of opportunity for people, does lead to an increase in crime.’
He told The Guardian that forces across England and Wales were skilled in dealing with the tensions and dynamics of their communities, adding: ‘What they’ve got to bear in mind is what is the best thing for the community, and that individual, in the way they deal with those issues. And I certainly fully support police officers using their discretion – and they need to use discretion more often.’
Past economic slumps have led to a rise in offences such as theft. Mr Cooke added. ‘It’s one of the great things about being a police officer,’ he said. ‘You’re allowed to make your own decisions in relation to all of these issues. It’s not a new thing.’
His comments echo those of Donna Jones, who leads on serious violence and victims for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Last year she suggested that persistent shoplifters should be spared jail and mooted the idea that retailers could pay for the rehabilitation of drug offenders who steal to feed their habit.
But Tom Ironside of the British Retail Consortium rejected the idea, saying: ‘It is irresponsible to suggest that shop lifting should not be treated seriously. When confronted, shoplifting often results in violence and abuse against retail staff, many of whom are women, and it costs retailers £2.5billion a year, which includes the cost of the actual theft as well as security measures.’
He said last September: ‘The law enforcement response is already poor, with only 6 per cent of the daily 455 incidents of violence and abuse taken to court.’